In a recent essay for The New Yorker, tech writer-turned-venture capitalist Om Malik writes that Silicon Valley lacks empathy -- that the innovation ecosystem is blind to the jobs it destroys, and to the concerns of those struggling for work. But the problem is way broader than even Malik writes.
Silicon Valley ignores the needs not only of the middle and working classes, but frankly, of anyone who doesn't resemble the venture capitalists, technologists, and entrepreneurs who make the so-called innovation economy hum.
This is not to ignore the philanthropic efforts of individual entrepreneurs, such as Mark Zuckerberg, or the leadership of investors such as Mitchell Kapor and Freada Kapor Klein, who are well-known for the priority they've placed on diversity and inclusiveness. It is to say that in their day-to-day work -- the funding and building of companies -- the vast majority of the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem is unconcerned with the problems of people who are not similar to themselves. And that's a lot of people.
Malik's argument is that Silicon Valley possesses a "distinct lack of empathy for those whose lives are disturbed by its technological wizardry." Malik gives newer startups a bit of a pass, because they're generally obsessed with just trying to stay in business. But, he says, "when you are a data-driven oligarchy like Facebook, Google, Amazon, or Uber, you really can't wash your hands of the impact of your algorithms and your ability to shape popular sentiment in our society."
Facebook, he says, was way too slow to accept its share of responsibility for propagating fake news; Amazon doesn't seem to consider that it's helping destroy jobs in the retail sector; Airbnb is oblivious to the fact that it could do the same to hotel staffing jobs. When Otto, a Bay Area startup recently acquired by Uber, successfully delivered 50,000 cans of beer 120 miles in a driverless truck, it was a "jaw-dropping" accomplishment from a technological standpoint, explains Malik. To a truck driver, he says, it was a "devastating 'oh, shit,' moment."
Malik rightly calls out the startup ecosystem for seeing only the technological achievement, and brushing aside the impact on truck drivers. But the problem is way worse than he makes it out to be. Most of the venture money that funds high-growth startups flows from well-connected, well-educated white males to their slightly younger, slightly more naive white male dopplegangers.
Female CEOs, as reported by Babson University, get only 2.7 percent of venture capital, and mixed-gender teams (founding teams that include at least one woman) get about 18 percent. A report by Digitalundivided found that black women tech founders get approximately 0.2 percent of venture capital -- statistically, zero. It can't possibly help that only about 6 percent of venture capitalists are women.
For many entrepreneurs, the spark of inspiration that eventually creates a company originates in a personal experience. In the startup world, this means that companies that aim to improve the experiences of young white men get a heck of a lot more attention than those that spring from the experiences of pretty much anyone else.
There are exceptions, of course, especially among biotech companies, but then again, it's only in the past few years that we've seen any significant funding in Silicon Valley addressing issues of say, fertility. After all, there's no better way to make a group of men squeamish than to show them an X-ray of a fallopian tube, and squeamishness is not an emotion that usually precedes funding.
Youth is no excuse
Contrary to Malik's view, younger companies shouldn't get a free pass. Why, in the very earliest stages of business planning and formation, couldn't founders consider the effects their startups, if successful, are likely to have on jobs and the larger economy? These founders eagerly plot out five-year financial projections before they've even developed a product or service; a few theories about the fates of those impacted by a company's success are not any less likely to hold water.
In at least some cases, you don't need much of a crystal ball to figure out what's going to happen. From Amazon's earliest days, Jeff Bezos envisioned a company that would profoundly affect retail, saying he named the company for the world's largest river because it would be deep and wide and drain everything. That doesn't sound like great news for store owners.
Across the country--and the world--there are thousands of entrepreneurs who are using businesses as a tool to solve social problems. They're looking at social problems first, and then at business models that might ameliorate them. Not every business has to solve a social problem, but we should to ask entrepreneurs to try to not make such problems worse.